How to Make Any Process Foolproof with a Checklist

Consistent Results with Less Effort and Stress

After I finish writing a blog post, there are still 43 things I need to do to publish it. Some are pretty trivial, but they still need done.

I used to worry about making mistakes. Several times, I published a post without adding a more tag (<!-- more --> — it’s a WordPress thing), or with an empty link (<a href="">), or at an oddball time (right day, but 3:47 pm instead of midnight). Once, I even forgot to schedule the post at all—I left it as a draft.

None of these were a big deal and each was quickly and easily rectified. It was, however, increasing the cognitive load to publish a post, stressing me out, and making it take longer than I wanted it to.

So I did what any self-respecting productivity nerd would do: I solved the problem one last time by making a checklist.

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How to Start Any Document with the Right Template

You only need to start at the beginning once.

I’ve loved tear-off stationery pads as long as I can remember. You know the ones—they’re like Post-It Notes with a form printed on them. Shopping lists, to-do lists, packing lists, babysitter instructions… Once, my parents bought a “While You Were Out” pad to keep by the phone in the kitchen. I was thrilled.

Paper is powerful, and stationery pads give you a starting point to help you quickly create a powerful little document, sometimes as little as 3″×3″. You knew you wouldn’t miss something because you had a template. All you had to do was fill out the fields.

Fast-forward to today. The world is much more digital now but we have a lot of the same workflows—meeting agendas and minutes, quarterly reports, envelopes… Have you ever started a new document by creating a copy of and old document? You know how helpful it is to have a template to start from instead of starting from scratch every time.

Did you know the Mac has a built-in feature that lets you turn any document into a digital stationery pad? It’s a great way to get a jump-start on any workflow.

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What Contexts Should You Use?

Identify when, where, and how you’ll get things done.

One of the fundamental concepts in GTD is the context. As David Allen explains in Getting Things Done (2015) (emphasis his):

[The] best way to be reminded of an “as soon as I can” action is by the particular context required for that action—that is, either the tool or the location or the situation needed to complete it.

In other words, contexts are a way of marshaling the many things you need to do so you can focus on the few that you can take action on right now.

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Why We Scan: The Scanning Manifesto

We scan not to discard, but to keep.

My children love to help me scan. They love opening the lid to our ScanSnap S1500M and hearing it whir to life. They love putting papers into the document feeder (though I usually insist on doing that part), pushing the glowing blue button, and watching the scanned documents slide out the bottom. They’ve learned that if we’re doing a lot of scanning then it saves time and effort to bring the wastebasket over to the desk. They enjoy the whole process and occasionally fight over which one gets to help me. The only part they’re happy to leave to me is touching up and filing the scans in Evernote.

The other week, I grabbed a cutout heart my daughter had made in preschool. She shrieked and snatched it away from me. “No!” she cried, clutching it to her chest. “I don’t want to scan this! I like it!”

It seems I’ve taught them the mechanics of scanning, but they haven’t yet learned why we scan.

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5 Tools That Will Save You From Email

Picking the wrong tool can create more work than it solves

This is a hammer. It pounds nails. It’s very good at it.

Once upon a time I tried driving a screw into drywall with a hammer. I had the hammer close by, I didn’t want to go track down a screwdriver, so I ignored the threads and treated the screw like it was a nail. It went in surprisingly smoothly, all things considered. I was well-pleased that my laziness had paid off.

…for about five seconds. Then I discovered that the screw came back out even easier than it went in. I didn’t even need the hammer for that. In the end, my laziness just created more work. I had to track down a screwdriver and some drywall anchors (after learning what drywall anchors are) and finish the job the way I should have started it in the first place.

Email is a tool. It does some things well. If you misuse it, you’re going to cause more work for yourself.

Here are five tools you should be using instead of seeing every situation as a problem email can solve.

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How to Create Insanely Strong Answers to Security Questions

When you don’t have to remember the answer, guessability goes to zero.

Back in college, my roommate and I both wanted to be able to make changes to the account with the utility company, so we made up answers to their challenge questions that we would both know.

There was a problem, though. Because none of the answers were derived from actual facts, it could be an interesting exercise at times to walk through the mind palace to remember the answer we had used. When it came time to disconnect the phone, I spent close to an hour with them, verifying that I was who I claimed to be, because I couldn’t confirm my mother’s maiden name. Once I had established myself, we reset the code word to a known value (her real maiden name) to replace the made-up one (“Bondi”, the color of my roommate’s first-generation iMac).

Security questions are even more common today. Web sites want an automated way to let you—and only you—get back into your account if you forget your password. Since it’s an automated system, you not only need to remember the answer but often exactly how you typed it. Did you use capital letters? Punctuation? Which security question did you even pick?

Fortunately, password managers can remember more than just your password. You can use 1Password to also track your security questions. For bonus points, you can even make up insanely strong answers that no one is going to guess.

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How long should you keep documents before shredding them?

The more important they are, the longer you’ll track them.

A single issue of the Wall Street Journal contains more information than the average 17th-century person was exposed to in their entire lifetime. We are exposed to more information in an hour than our grandparents were all month. There’s a lot of information coming at us, and it’s not slowing down any time soon.

Much of that information comes to us on paper. We can’t keep it all—curating that collection would be a full-time job and require an extraordinary filing system. We can’t get rid of it all and go completely paperless, either.

How long should you keep a document? Can you scan it, or do you need the original? Well, it depends.

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Never Lose Track of a Gift Card Again

Track your gift cards, gift certificates, and coupons with Evernote

I love gift cards. If you’re careful, they can be good for gifts, especially gift certificates for experiences—dinner, massages, skydiving, etc. (If you’re not careful, it can come across as thoughtless.)

Where I really love gift cards, though, is Costco. For $80, I can buy $100 in gift cards to my favorite restaurants, golf courses, and even the iTunes Store.

Like anything you buy at Costco, it’s only a deal if you’re going to use it. For gift cards, a large part of that is not losing it or sticking it someplace safe only to forget about it. It’s one thing to lose a gift card you receive, but when you lose one you buy, that’s just money out the door.

Fortunately, there’s an easy way you can integrate gift cards, gift certificates, and coupons into your trusted system. Once again, Evernote is your friend.

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How to Make Gift-Giving a Breeze with Evernote

Take the stress out of giving by keeping good notes

I love Christmas! The music, the decorations, the time spent with family… it truly is the most wonderful time of the year. If there’s snow, even better.

I love the giving nature of the season, too. As a kid, you enjoy getting presents for Christmas, because that’s all you know. As you mature, the joy of giving should quickly eclipse the joy of receiving. It’s what happens naturally as we start showing consideration for others.

Selecting the right gift for someone can be a challenge. Like any task or project, this challenge can be improved by keeping good notes. Here’s how you can set up a gift-giving reference file in Evernote that will make your Christmas (or birthday) shopping a breeze.

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How to Make an Ordinary Goal Become Powerful

When Benjamin Franklin was a young man, he identified twelve virtues that he wanted to develop and make a part of his character. A friend saw his list and half-jokingly suggested that he add humility to his list. Franklin agreed, and appended it to his list of now thirteen virtues.

Humility was the one that he always had the hardest time with. There’s a significant reason for that. The first twelve virtues were ones he had come up with. He thought long and hard about the kind of man he wanted to be and that’s what he saw. That was his vision. Humility was someone else’s idea. He didn’t have the same intimate, emotional connection to it.

That’s the same reason we struggle with setting goals that last more than 30 days. Defining the SMARTER attributes and breaking down the goal into smaller milestones, checkpoints, projects, and specific tasks are a good start. They’re necessary, but not sufficient. In order to make our goals powerful—and not just written aspirations—we need to be clear on why we’re setting the goal.

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